One of the best ways to understand a society’s values is to look at the language its people use to describe each other. Words people choose to use – and refuse to use – offer a glimpse of their attitudes toward their fellow countrymen.
No profession plays a more significant role in shaping that language and those deeper attitudes than journalism. The words chosen by reporters and news outlets often set our standards and reflect our values. That, in turn, shapes the attitudes in the culture at large.
An increasing number of reporters and news outlets have made the courageous decision to stop using the offensive name of Washington’s professional football team. That is both encouraging and so important: it acknowledges that the R-word is a racial slur that falls far short of the values that America should embrace.
It’s a timely discussion worth having given that radio ads urging the Washington team to change its name are being aired in Maryland this week surrounding the Baltimore Raven’s Thanksgiving Day game.
We are witnessing a national awakening. If it was only one magazine or one reporter making this decision, it might not be monumental. Reporters, columnists and editors from household publications as familiar as USA Today, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, Slate and numerous others understand that the name is hurtful and offensive to indigenous people, so they have stopped using it.
These reporters and editors are concluding that using the R-word is not simply reporting news. They are recognizing that their own publication of the term to widespread audiences condones and perpetuates a racial slur. Using the term freely suggests it is acceptable for the public to continue using it, notwithstanding their knowledge that it is offensive. With every passing week more journalists are taking responsibility for their actions and declaring that their industry should no longer continue to sustain a vernacular of hate.
“Vernacular of hate” is not an exaggeration. Consider that the Washington team’s name is the word used against my people when we were forced off our land at gun point. Consider the mindset of the team owner who first gave the team its name. He was an opponent of integration. The Washington football team was the last to have an African American player on its roster.
Or, as USA Today’s Christine Brennan wrote, consider “explaining and defending the nickname to a child.” As she notes, “It’s impossible,” because “it’s racist.”
Some have criticized the push to change Washington’s team name, labeling it as over-reaching for “political correctness.” What is so wrong with modifying language that is destructive? As Slate editor David Plotz suggested, there should be absolutely nothing wrong with that. “Changing the way we talk is not political correctness run amok,” he wrote in his essay about not using the word. “It reflects an admirable willingness to acknowledge others who once were barely visible to the dominant culture, and to recognize that something that may seem innocent to you may be painful to others.”
Perhaps the real question for every newsroom to answer is this: what could possibly justify such a desire to keep using a racial slur? Native people do not deserve to be denigrated by a language of hate.
We applaud those journalists and editors who have concluded that continuing to use the term simply is not right. Perpetuating the “R-word,” and the dehumanizing impact it has upon the first Americans, does not reflect this country’s values for how we should treat each other.
In their brave stands, we can see a welcome realization that Native peoples also deserve a language that treats us simply as what we are: Americans.
Please take the poll about Washington’s football name on the right side of our homepage.
Ray Halbritter, Nation Representative of the Oneida Indian Nation Inc. since 1975 and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of its enterprises since 1990, has led the Oneida people to an economic and cultural renaissance over the past 30 years. His accomplishments include achieving federal government recognition of the Nation’s traditional form of government, creating numerous health and social programs for Nation Members, constructing new housing, and establishing education and culture programs. Halbritter earned his law degree from Harvard Law School and a bachelor’s of science degree in business administration from Syracuse University. An avid golfer, Halbritter passed the Players Ability Test, making him a golf pro apprentice, the first stage to become a member of the Professional Golfers Association.